7 Tips for Virtual Backroom Engagement During Online Focus Groups

By: Garnette Weber, itracks COO and Co-founder

 In this period of significant change in consumer preferences, motivations and behavior, clients benefit now more than ever from observing participant interactions live during online focus groups and interviews. Travel restrictions, personal health risks and caregiver obligations are eliminating the option for clients/stakeholders to travel making the virtual backroom critical to creating a valuable qualitative research experience. After hosting thousands of online focus groups and interviews, a few best practices for creating engaging client experiences have emerged. 

1. Encourage clients to attend the live online focus groups.

 Just like sporting or entertainment events, there is a special magic and energy that takes place when you are watching the event live!  Watching the recordings does not provide the same experience or opportunity for realtime communication between clients/stakeholders and the moderator.  The live backroom experience also allows clients to provide assistance in clarifying terms, give realtime feedback on customer questions and logistics, as well as identifying comments and themes where they would like further probing. Involvement of clients in the backroom during online qualitative studies may assist in building trust in the methodology and the research findings. For clients that have traditionally used faceto-face interviews and focus groups, the use of video during online studies may enhance confidence in the recruitment process and research methodology. 

It also helps to facilitate empathy. As one client expressed to me after an intense truth telling focus group, it’s one thing for the researcher to share intense client feedback, it’s another thing to hear it directly from your client in real-time! One example we’ve observed where this was utilized to full effect was during online focus groups completed with EON, a UKbased energy company. Nearly 1,000 employees observed customer focus groups, which facilitated empathy and increased team motivation to implement research findings. 

 You may want to delay mentioning that the recordings of the groups are available after the session to increase your clients’ motivation to attend the live sessions! 

 2. Encourage video engagement with clients and let them know in advance. 

 Having highquality video and audio engagement with your clients will significantly enhance your communication with them.  Various studies indicate that between 70-93 percent of communication is non-verbal, making high quality video and audio feeds critical for viewing facial expressions, posture and head positioning Use good video etiquette including turning off phones, avoiding excessive movements and making eye contact with the camera to enhance your clients’ video communication experience with you.   

 If your client has not used a researchspecific platform that allows for video discussions in the virtual backroom, they may be expecting to be muted and not have a camera on during the focus group. By informing them of the virtual backroom video communication in advance, they will be able to ensure they are in an environment conducive to a video call and will be sure not to change into their PJ’s before the group!  We have also learned that they are less likely to “multitask” allowing them to focus on watching your research in action and their clients in real-time. 

 3. Missing a chat over your client’s favorite wine or snacks? Treat your client to a Backroom Experience Package! 

 We have seen researchers send Backroom Experience Packages to clients to recreate their in-person backroom experience. Consider sending a favorite brand of wine with a cheese basket. They will feel special and at the same time able to safely watch the discussions from the comfort of their homes. Just as with in-person groups, they may be more likely to stick around after the group to discuss their next project with you. There are lots of local restaurants and service companies that offer this service and your client may appreciate that you are supporting their local community. 

4. Greet and welcome your clients prior to the focus group 

 Similar to in-person focus groups, arrange for the client/stakeholder observers to arrive early to give them time to get settled and to meet the moderator.  This is a great time to confirm any final topic questions and instil confidence in the researcher’s ability to execute a great focus group.   

 Remember that you can’t be two places at once!  Often researchers will either arrange for a colleague to greet and welcome the participants in the virtual waiting room or, they may hire a concierge service to serve as reception and greet the participants as they arrive.  This is similar to the receptionist role in at a traditional facility. This small extra investment allows the moderator the opportunity to interact with the client/stakeholders in the backroom and put everyone at ease.  

 5. Provide an explanation of how the backroom works  

 Virtual backrooms available in online qualitative research platforms offer the ability for client observers to interact with the moderator in real time, with safe guards in place that make it so these same observers cannot interact directly with participants. If your client has not experienced an actual researchspecific online focus group platform, they may not be aware that they can talk, share their video feed to interact with other observers and the moderator and send messages without being heard by the participants.  The most common question we see is, “can the participants see or hear me?”   

 Confirming that there is no possible way that their text comments, audio or video will be seen by participants will put them at ease so that they feel comfortable sharing their unfiltered thoughts and reactions during the group. 

 6. Establish a communication process during the group 

 By encouraging feedback during the session and providing a clear process to communicate feedback, client engagement can be increased significantly.  Many researchers prefer to turn down the audio feed from the backroom during the focus group to allow them to focus on the audio feed from the participants. Researchers will often request backroom feedback to be provided to the moderator through the text messaging area of the platform during the live focus group.  If there are a large number of backroom clients/stakeholders, you may want to designate a point person, or even a second “backroom moderator’ to send feedback to the main moderator. Sometime moderators will check in with the backroom while the participants are completing a research activity independently during the session.  

 Outlining a communication plan can help facilitate valuable and timely information flow between observers and the moderator.   

 7. Schedule a post-group debrief session 

 Host a debrief session following the group while all of the comments and emotion are fresh in everyone’s minds. The observer comments provide the researcher with great insight into the key areas that stood out in the client’s mind.  Stakeholders/client observers can give feedback based on what the participants have said in order to make changes in the discussion guide and/or activities for the next focus group. For projects with a customer immersion goal in mind, the debrief helps solidify the empathy for the customer that is critical to motivating people to drive change. Pre-scheduling the debrief session into the day’s agenda will ensure that the client creates a space in their calendar for this critical aspect of the research experience. 

 While the focus of research is the main room of the focus group, the true value of a focus group is often provided through the observer backroom experience.  The advancement of researchspecific virtual backroom platforms can enhance the experience. Preparing for and facilitating client engagement prior to, during and following online focus groups can provide a valuable experience for stakeholders/ clients enhancing the impact of the research initiative.     

Have questions? Contact us here, and we’d be happy to chat about getting you started with online qualitative research!